Improving WARNS, a K-12 at-risk assessment tool

Stacked books.An interdisciplinary team of Washington State University researchers received a $1.4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to refine and expand the Washington Assessment of the Risks and Needs of Students program (WARNS), an assessment that helps address truancy in K-12 schools.

Developed in 2008, the program uses evidence-driven procedures to track and improve interventions with students. More than 100 schools in Washington state and across the nation are now using the tool to assesses students in six areas linked to truancy: delinquency and/or dropping out of school: aggression-defiance, depression-anxiety, substance abuse, peer deviance, family environment and school engagement.

Paul Strand, WSU Tri-Cities professor of psychology; Brian French, Berry Family Distinguished professor and director of WSU’s Learning and Performance Research Center and Psychometric Laboratory; Nick Lovrich, WSU Regents professor emeritus in political science; and Bruce Austin, research associate in educational psychology and the LPRC, have worked since 2014 to evaluate and refine WARNS. With the grant, the team will add Chad Gotch and Marcus Poppen, both WSU assistant professors in education, and Mary Roduta Roberts, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta.

Paul Strand

Strand said schools use the data from the assessment to develop and implement a plan for at-risk students through school community truancy boards to help prevent and/or correct student behavior.

“With the pandemic, we have seen that many counselors are struggling to stay connected and invested in kids,” he said. “But what we have seen with WARNS is that it has helped schools stay connected and invested in kids. The pandemic wasn’t something we could have envisioned, but it is a tool that has helped.”

French said what makes the program so successful is its ability to hone-in on issues that lead to truancy early in a student’s educational path. Schools can develop a plan for how to address those issues and increase the student’s likelihood of being successful. He said what was made especially clear amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the need to get information to counselors regarding student issues at home and other external factors that prevent students’ current and future success.

“This grant will also allow us more space to examine its success,” French said. “We will also be looking into specific implications of the WARNS – how it is used and the success when it is in use. We want to look at the implications and gather data to know how those conversations are helping and specific instances of how that is happening. Then, we can continue to build from that information.”

Strand said the new grant will allow the team to update the instrument in a few ways. He said a variety of new issues have arisen that have impacted school attendance and performance in recent years. Examples, he said, include the prevalence of vaping and social media use.

Additionally, the team aims to improve the middle school version of the instrument to tailor it further for issues that pertain to that specific age demographic.

Identifying issues early

French said more than 10,000 assessments have been given through the program.

“To me, that represents 10,000 productive conversations that have occurred with kids,” he said. “We can look at the large numbers to help us do that, but each of those individual conversations are helping make a difference in the lives of thousands of kids each year.”

For more information about WARNS, including how to implement it for individual schools or school districts, visit

Top photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

By Meagan Murray, for WSU Tri-Cities and WSU Insider.